MPs Highlight Threat To Journalism In Counter Terrorism Regime

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has renewed its call for safeguards to protect freedom of speech and journalism to be introduced to the counter terrorism regime.  

In a report on the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, the Committee has again voiced concerns around the sweeping new powers which would be introduced by the legislation, arguing that they pose a direct threat to journalism, joining the News Media Association and other bodies in their call for safeguards.  

The Committee said the proposal to criminalise the viewing of terrorist material on the internet – a key concern of the NMA because of the risk of criminalising journalists researching stories about terrorism – was an “unjustified interference.”

“We were particularly concerned that the defence of reasonable excuse did not provide an explicit safeguard for legitimate activity, such as academic and journalistic research, as well as for those who viewed material with inquisitive or foolish minds,” the Committee said.

Members of the House of Lords from the Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour parties have all voiced their fears of the threat to legitimate reporting on terrorism issues in the public interest posed by the new regime.  

The NMA remains concerned about a number of aspects of the Bill which could lead to journalists being criminalised for reporting on terrorism or rendering them unable to protect journalistic sources.  

The Committee also said that the lack of clarity around the clause criminalising expressions of support for a proscribed organisation risked creating a “chilling effect on free speech” and “constituting a disproportionate interference with the right to free speech in our society.”

With regard to the new stop and search powers at ports and borders, the Committee proposed two amendments to insert a threshold of reasonable suspicion and require that the exercise of the power must be necessary and proportionate.

“We expressed concern that Schedule 3 provides for interference with the rights to private life, freedom of expression, and property, yet the powers it gives are dangerously broad. In particular, the definition of ‘hostile act’ is extremely wide and there is no threshold test of suspicion required before a person is detained and examined,” the Committee added.

The new offence of publishing an image online depicting clothing or other articles which arouse reasonable suspicion that the person is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation had a low threshold, the Committee said, and proposed the introduction of a reasonable excuse defence.

“This option would retain the new offence of “publication of images” in clause 2, but it would create a defence of reasonable excuse so to ensure that the offence did not catch the publication of historical, academic or family images,” the Committee added.